I like to spot praying mantises in my garden. Starting in early spring, I can usually find the tiny, just-hatched nymphs, only a few millimeters long, staking out territories. As spring and summer progress, I find larger and larger instars as they grow. (Each time the insect sheds its skin, it becomes the next instar, or growth stage; in the usual species found in my yard, the bordered mantis, there are six or seven instars from hatchling to winged adult.) It’s not unusual to find the same individual for a few days in a row, as they tend to hang out in roughly the same area. In the fall, the adults are easy to spot, because they’re large insects — especially the bulkier females, which despite finally having wings are too heavy to fly. Usually by mid-to-late November here in inland southern California, the adults mate and die, then I find them on the ground, and it’s time to wait out the winter for the next generation. Like many insects, they are seasonal, like leaves on deciduous trees; they go from pinhead-dancing nymphs to arthropod T-rexes in a few short months, then they’re gone.
But every once in awhile — like this year — I find one hanging on later than usual. These pictures are of the same female, taken on successive days during the last week of the year. Maybe in milder coastal areas they linger through December, but in my yard, this female holds the record. I know her days are numbered. There’s nothing much left in the garden for her to eat. It’s cold (for California) and we’ve even had a couple of light frosts this week. But I look for her every day, and I root for her to keep on keeping on.
I don’t know how, or whether, insects experience time. Does it move more slowly for them, so that to a mantis, a few months of life are like many decades to us? Of course, lacking an obsession with self-reflection or the concept of object permanence or a long history of artistic rumination on their own mortality, they may not experience time at all — they may just react moment to moment to whatever stimuli are in front of them then decide whether something is predator or prey, mate or rival. But in any case, the old mantis in my garden is still here. Whether she experiences the last days of 2014 as her twilight, or just moment by moment as they happen, it doesn’t matter. She’s still here. And I hope she’ll be here tomorrow.
Of course, Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” so I guess my mantis doesn’t qualify for the metaphor. But feathers or not, she still has wings.
(Click Photos To Enlarge)